As Game 4 of their second-round series against the Golden State Warriors wound down, 19,911 Utah Jazz fans, doused in navy, green, and yellow shirts, rose to their feet with 3:42 remaining. This was not because Iso Joe hit another clutch shot. It was not because Rudy Gobert stifled another opponent at the rim. The score was 114-89, and coach Quin Snyder decided to take out star forward and leader Gordon Hayward. This wasn’t just for Utah fans to pay their appreciation to the best Jazz season since the Deron Williams–Carlos Boozer era. This was to alert Hayward as to what he would be missing out on if he decided to leave Salt Lake City. Hayward is priority number one for GM Dennis Lindsey and the Utah front office, but that is far from the only decision that Utah has to make before late October rolls around.
Utah Jazz’s Future Remains Bright
Amongst the five biggest names available, Hayward will have numerous suitors. The Jazz’s future with Hayward, compared to without him, looks drastically different. The Boston Celtics have continuously been linked due to Hayward’s connection to his former college coach, Brad Stevens. Other teams will surely look into taking their shot at wooing the 6’8″ wing.
If given the chance, the Jazz will not hesitate to offer Hayward whatever he desires as their franchise cornerstone and the leader of the #TakeNote regime. A player who has improved over each of his first seven seasons, Hayward showed a new level this time around. Multiple media members with votes legitimately considered him for the All-NBA 3rd Team. In the playoffs, he battled superstar point guard Chris Paul and did as much as he physically could against the loaded and heavily favored Warriors. Hayward’s playoff performances show that he could truly be taking ‘The Leap.’
ESPN.com reported a potential surprise development in the plans of teams seeking Hayward’s services:
Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said Tuesday he hasn’t thought about whether he will opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent and will take some time off to enjoy time with his family before dealing with the “next chapter.”
“It’s hard to think about right now, just because of the season we’ve had and everything we’ve gone through,” he said at his end-of-season availability. “Today it still feels like you’re looking toward the next game, looking toward the next opponent. That’s obviously over. But it’s hard to shut that off right away.”
Hayward has always seemed like a lock to opt out of the final year of his deal. While the chances of him doing so are slim, if Hayward were to opt into the final year of his contract, worth $16.7 million, the Jazz would be $12 million over the cap, factoring in Gobert’s extension kicking in and the cap holds for their free agents.
George Hill’s Free Agency
Among the other difficult decisions facing Utah is that of George Hill, a perpetually underrated upcoming free agent. Hill averaged 15.6 points (shooting 38.7 percent from three), 4.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists before being held out of the final three games of their series against the Warriors. He is a tall, lanky defender who fits perfectly as a point guard next to any ball dominant wing. That’s because Hill doesn’t need the ball and can space the floor. Hill has yet to sign a huge deal – he’s never made more than $8 million per year – and will be looking for one. The Jazz have his Bird rights, so they can pay him while going over the cap. Many other teams will take a hard look at Hill due to the fact that he doesn’t get paid as much as the Chris Pauls and Kyle Lowrys of the world, but he is still solid at the position.
One team to watch as a dark-horse to sign Hill is the Toronto Raptors. Should Lowry walk, Hill can slide in and fill his role well while being more manageable, money-wise. A core of Hill, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka would at least be serviceable, should the Raptors look to save some money and not back out of their most successful run in franchise history.
Joe Ingles is the other key free agent for the Jazz. A player who can fit on any team in the league, he should expect around $10 million per year, and the Jazz have to ask themselves if they can afford him. He filled in nicely for them when he started the latter part of the season, following Rodney Hood‘s struggles. If Utah lets Ingles walk, the team will rely on Hayward (if he re-signs), Hood, Alec Burks, and Joe Johnson to man the wings next season, along with maybe one other cheap free agent.
Who Else Steps Up?
The easiest way to get good players is for those already on the team to develop. Snyder and his staff have been exquisite at player development, but more is needed in a league led by teams with four stars or LeBron James. Hayward and Gobert have both improved leaps and bounds during Snyder’s tenure. Now, it’s time for others to continue improving so that 2016-17 doesn’t turn out to be the peak for this Jazz team.
It starts with Hood. Hood, on paper, is the ideal NBA wing. He is long, can shoot the three, can operate out of the pick-and-roll, and is a solid defender.
There were high expectations for Hood coming into the season, but he didn’t fully live up to them. However, he has a chance to improve some more in the coming off-season.
The other player to watch is the fourth-year man from Australia, Dante Exum. Exum hasn’t lived up to his No. 5 draft pick status from 2014. It’s make or break time for him and the Jazz. Following this season, the Jazz will have to see Exum develop into a solid rotation piece for them to consider retaining him. Exum will be a restricted free agent once his rookie deal expires, which is at the end of next season. He has had injury issues, but the management in Utah still has high expectations for him. The Jazz’s decision on Hill will say a lot about how much faith they have in Exum.
A lot has to go right for the Jazz. The front office has to make the right choices and players have to commit to getting better in the off-season, but if they do, look out – the Utah Jazz’s peak is still ahead.